Warren should now champion race dialogue at home, too

Senator's call for national conversation on reparations can start here

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN is running for president with an ever-percolating pot of policy ideas. She has advanced a cornucopia of legislative proposals in recent weeks, earning her the mark of a wonk in a recent Time magazine profile.

While reaching the White House may preoccupy her ambitions these days, looking to Massachusetts as a potential incubator for her ideas could also serve Warren well as a political visionary on racial issues in the state.

Warren has not left race issues out of her sweeping set of national policy pronouncements. Indeed, she has led the current cast of presidential candidates in conversations about reparations — the long-debated policy of compensating present-day African-Americans for legacy of slavery.

“America was founded on principles of liberty and freedom and on the backs of slave labor,” she said at a town hall meeting at Jackson State University in Mississippi earlier this spring. “This is a stain on America, and we’re not going to fix that, we’re not going to change that until we address it head on, directly … I believe it’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations in this country,” she said to the cheers of mostly African-American students at the historically black college.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren at her February presidential campaign kickoff in Lawrence. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Well, what’s good for dialogue in the black belt and on the campaign trail in far-off states should also be good for constructive reform at home in the Commonwealth.

To date, Warren has barely weighed in on the history of racial disparities in Massachusetts with any degree of specificity.  But the opportunity is there. Our senior senator should call for a state commission on race, dialogue and civic understanding.

Clearly, there remain deep fissures around race across the state.

Boston continues to reel from a 2015 study by the Federal Revere of Boston that noted the devastating racial wealth inequality with the city. While the net worth for the average white family in Boston is $247,000, the average net worth for a non-immigrant black family is $8. This wealth inequality chasm is a shameful indictment of policies in Boston reflected in systemic economic practices and curtailed housing opportunities.

Stark inequality is also evident in the uneven educational achievement between black and white students within the Boston public school system. While 63 percent of white students in grades 3 through 8 scored at or above grade-level proficiency in MCAS reading in 2018, only 24 percent of blacks performed at that level.

Add to these examples of systemic racism the following:

  • In Boston earlier this month “black and brown” seventh graders at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy were racially profiled and subjected to racial slurs while on a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, forcing leaders of the otherwise venerable institution to apologize.
  • In Brockton at the start of Black History Month this year, a woman of Haitian decent claims she was attacked with racial slurs and damage to her property by a local elderly white woman. Public racial slurring is common across the state.
  • Since 2017, there have been six incidents of racial graffiti at Framingham State University.  Officials at the school have been forced to form a Bias Education Response Team to address ethnic animus on campus.

Racism in the Commonwealth remains pernicious and ineluctable. It has never been addressed seriously or systemically. It has never been seen as a collective project deserving a comprehensive response — a response that explores the continuous ways in which the structural forms of white supremacy have shackled our shared history.

Ethnic bias — and the ongoing violence it produces — began in Massachusetts at the outset of colonial history. Colonists relied heavily on the forced labor of indigenous people. The slavery imposed on native people was grounded in white animus and an aim toward empire.

Local merchant Samuel Maverick introduced black slavery to Massachusetts by bringing two blacks into the colony in 1624, before Boston was founded. Maverick’s work settled on Noddle Island, now known as East Boston. Maverick Square in East Boston is named after our state’s first slaver.

Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery. John Winthrop, our state’s third governor, is recognized for writing the Massachusetts colony slavery laws.

Reckoning with our legacy of slavery and continuing racial bias is no small task. It requires time, effort, and resources. It also requires civic courage — a willingness to take painful looks at past atrocities forced upon First People groups and blacks in an effort by whites to create wealth and political dominance.

Still, a horizon of racial progress and understanding looms like a promise before us. What would a state commission on race, dialogue, and civic understanding do? How would it work? And what could be the results? How might we attach ourselves to Sen. Warren’s recent advice regarding reparations — acknowledging our ignominious past with an eye toward restorative justice?

First, the commission, which would be comprised of civil rights leaders, youth, and elected and appointed officials, would prioritize convening proactive discussion on race for the public record. Through dialogue, the tasks of uncovering suppressed truths and hidden histories can be made possible. Many in our state remain unaware that slavery is at its foundation — and that slavery supported its nascent economy and cultural mores. Possessing this basic information is a good start for all of us.

Second, the commission would elicit and promote public empathy. Understanding the social arrangements of Massachusetts centuries ago can give insight into why racial disparities possibly remain today. The black slave — sold on the auction block at Faneuil Hall — may reveal more than we think about the mass incarceration of black men in our city presently. Understanding and embracing a public narrative relating to the suffering of others may well strengthen community and common purposes moving forward.

Finally, the commission can lead to social, economic, and political repair through dynamic policy innovation.

Wealth inequality and academic achievement disparities based upon race remain the most glaring issues in the Commonwealth. They can be addressed through a conscientious process of repair — a process steeped in civil reconstruction and reconciliation. This process of repair would need to last over generations.

While the output of a commission would depend mostly on the innovation flowing from its inner-working processes, where citizens struggle in dialogue to produce viable solutions, a few outcomes can be expected as reasonably possible.

In the area of the academic difference between black and white students, the commission may recommend sweeping education reforms to invest in better school facilities, high quality teachers, and pre- and after-school programs that are specifically targeted to black communities where academic achievement has historically lagged.

Such innovation should be linked to the cluster of graduate schools of education within the colleges and universities that surround Boston, creating a nexus of education design, apprenticeship, and adoption. The rent that our universities pay must be the deep commitment they make to the most needy students in the Commonwealth. This must be a multi-generation partnership deeply committed to tracking longitudinal outcomes and striving for equity between blacks and whites in the city.

Similarly, city policy planners must not flinch at the looming task relating to addressing the racial wealth gap. Closing this gap can be addressed by policies promoting homeownership for blacks in Boston, as the first step.  Solving this problem cannot be left to the whims of a laissez-faire economy.

Bostonians of all walks of life must recognize the historical mistreatment of blacks in Boston and commit to policies that level the economic conditions that have adversely impacted them. This may require partnerships with local academia and powerful business interests in the city to creatively redistribute wealth through employment opportunities and land acquisition opportunities.

Strong, creative, and uncompromising leadership is needed to address the wealth and educational achievement gap that divides the city between white and black.

But leadership is not enough. It is important to engage the general public – to measure their passions on the matter, to capture their sympathies and ideas on what constitutes restorative justice.

Sen. Warren has displayed strong leadership by urging that we engage in a national conversation on race. But, as the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously observed: “All politics is local.”

Meet the Author

Given this, Sen. Warren should encourage Massachusetts leaders to begin a serious, protracted, and comprehensive public engagement process on race. Only then can we begin to repair that which has been broken for so long in our state – our common humanity and our notions of justice and equity.

Kevin Peterson is the founder of the New Democracy Coalition, which focuses on civic literacy, civic policy, and electoral justice.